VATICAN CITY (CNA/EWTN News) - After spending previous years washing the feet of inmates and disabled persons on Holy Thursday, this year Pope Francis will celebrate the liturgy in a welcoming center for migrants and refugees.
The Pope will say a Chrism Mass at the Vatican before heading to the Reception Center for Asylum Seekers, or CARA, in Castelnuovo di Porto, just over 18 miles outside of Rome, on the afternoon of March 24.
He will arrive to the center around 5 pm, where he will say the Mass of the Lord's Supper and wash the feet of 12 migrants welcomed by the center, many of whom are not Catholic.
The news came in a March 22 article from the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano explaining the reason why the location was chosen. The article was written by Archbishop Rino Fisichella, president of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization.
In previous years Pope Francis has offered the Lord's Supper Mass on Holy Thursday at a youth detention center, a rehabilitation center for the disabled, and a large prison in Rome. This marks the first year he will celebrate the liturgy at a migrant center.
More than 900 asylum seekers are housed at the center, virtually all of whom come from sub-Saharan Africa. CARA is one of the most demanding asylum centers in all of Italy.
In 2015 alone more than 1.1 million migrants fleeing war and violence poured into Europe, and the influx has continued. Many Syrians seeking to escape the civil war which has devastated their country for the past five years enter Europe through Turkey, taking boats to the Greek isles.
With leaders perplexed as to how to handle the migrant flow, last week a new deal was struck between the E.U. and Turkey stipulating that all migrants and refugees who cross into Greece illegally by sea will be sent back to Turkey once they have been registered and their asylum claims processed.
In return, the E.U. agreed to take in thousands of Syrian refugees directly from Turkey, giving the country early visa-free travel and advancing talks regarding their E.U. membership negotiations.
The Pope's decision to celebrate the Holy Thursday liturgy at the center comes after he has repeatedly pled on behalf of migrants' rights in past few weeks.
In his March 16 general audience Francis appealed to world leaders to open their doors to migrants, lamenting that many are "living a real and dramatic situation of exile."
"Far away from their homeland, with their eyes still full of the rubble of their homes," these migrants often find "closed doors" when attempting to enter another country, he said.
The Pope said that "I like it a lot when I see nations, governments, who open their hearts and open their doors" to the migrants and refugees seeking to enter.
Similarly, on Palm Sunday Francis said that when Christ suffered from the indifference of political leaders in being sent from Pilate to Herod and then back to the Roman governor, he was thinking in particular "of so many other people, so many marginalized people, so many asylum seekers, so many refugees."
"There are so many who don't want to take responsibility for their destiny."
He also offered special greetings to some 6,000 migrants and refugees during his Jan. 17 Angelus address, which fell on the World Day of Migrants and Refugees. The day was also celebrated as a special Jubilee of Migrants as part of Francis' larger Jubilee of Mercy.
In his address, the Pope told the migrants that "each one of you carries within yourself a story, a culture, of precious value; and often unfortunately experiences of misery, oppression and fear," and encouraged them not to give up in the face of difficulties.
During his Sept. 6, 2015 Angelus Francis made an appeal to all the parishes, to religious communities, to monasteries, and sanctuaries of all Europe to "to express the concreteness of the Gospel" and welcome a family of refugees.
The Vatican's two parishes - St. Anne's and St. Peter's - have already welcomed two refugee families.
The first family, housed by St. Anne's, consists of a father, mother and two children. Syrian Christians of Catholic Greek-Melkite Church, the family fled their war-torn city of Damascus and arrived to the Vatican Sept. 6, the same day as the Pope's appeal.
The second family, provided for by St. Peter's, is an Eritrean family, consisting of a mother and her five children who arrived earlier this year.